The Oklahoman

Florida school shooter faces trial for jail brawl

- Terry Spencer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The suspect in the 2018 killing of 17 people at a Florida high school is finally going on trial – but not for the slayings.

Jury selection begins Monday on charges Nikolas Cruz attacked a Broward County jail guard nine months after the Feb. 14, 2018, shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, brawled with Sgt. Raymond Beltran after being jailed on charges of killing 14 students and three staff members and wounding 17 others. No date has been set for the murder trial, which has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments over witnesses and evidence. It may start in the next few months.

Cruz, 23, faces a possible 15-year sentence if convicted of attempted criminal battery on a law enforcemen­t officer and three lesser charges. Cruz will get either death or life in prison without parole if he is later found guilty of first-degree murder, but this trial still has relevance. If Cruz is convicted of attacking Beltran, prosecutor­s can argue that is an aggravatin­g factor when they seek his execution during the penalty phase of his murder trial if convicted.

“If that is entered as an aggravatin­g factor, it will be hard for that not to be in the back of the jury’s mind,” said Mark Dobson, a professor at Nova Southeaste­rn University’s law school and a former Florida prosecutor.

Cruz’s public defenders declined comment, saying they don’t want to further traumatize the shooting victims’ families by discussing their client.

Cruz’s attorneys are expected to argue that Beltran mistreated Cruz previously and provoked the Nov. 13, 2018, brawl, which occurred inside a Broward County jail recreation area and was captured on a soundless security video.

The preserved video begins a couple minutes before the brawl. It shows Cruz walking alone in circles with his head down around tables with attached benches. He is dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, a white long-sleeve undershirt and sandals. Beltran is sitting at a table in the corner.

Suddenly, Cruz stops about 10 feet from Beltran and the two appear to exchange words – Beltran told investigat­ors he asked Cruz not to drag his feet and damage his sandals.

Cruz flips both middle fingers at Beltran and then charges the guard, who stands up to defend himself. Cruz, who weighs about 130 pounds, throws the larger Beltran to the ground, before the guard is able to flip him and briefly pin him. Cruz grabs Beltran’s stun gun and they fight over it as it goes off, apparently jolting neither, before the guard wrests it away.

Cruz escapes Beltran’s grasp and the two take boxing stances. Cruz punches Beltran in the shoulder before the guard hits Cruz in the head, staggering him.

Beltran then rearms his stun gun and points it at Cruz, who had sat on a bench. Cruz lies face down on the ground and is handcuffed. The fight lasted almost exactly a minute. Neither was seriously hurt.

Because of Cruz’s infamy in South Florida, jury selection is scheduled to last three days – in a typical jail battery trial with a defendant the public doesn’t know, it would likely take a few hours.

 ?? SUN-SENTINEL VIA POOL/AP ?? Nikolas Cruz has not yet stood trial for the Stoneman Douglas High School killings. JOE CAVARETTA/SOUTH FLORIDA
SUN-SENTINEL VIA POOL/AP Nikolas Cruz has not yet stood trial for the Stoneman Douglas High School killings. JOE CAVARETTA/SOUTH FLORIDA

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